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Will women see a break in Hollywood's 'celluloid ceiling'?

23 February 2016, 08:48

New York — "Well, the time has come," announced presenter Barbra Streisand at the 2010 Oscars, revealing that Kathryn Bigelow had won the best director prize for "The Hurt Locker" — the first woman in history to win the award.

It was a watershed moment in Hollywood, and many were hopeful — if not certain — that it would usher in an era of increased opportunity for women directors. Six years later, though, the slate of best-director nominees is all male, as it has been every year since Bigelow won. In fact, women have been nominated only four times in the Oscars' 88-year history.

"Of course, the 'Bigelow effect' never materialized," says Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The Center's latest annual study found that women comprised just 9 percent of directors on the top 250 films in 2015, the same as in 1998. Studies have shown similar disproportion for women in other key behind-the-camera roles.

But is the tide turning? While recent attention has focused intensely on the #OscarsSoWhite campaign sparked by the lack of racial diversity in the Oscar nominations, some women in Hollywood are heartened — albeit cautiously — by recent developments that should benefit women and minorities, both behind the camera and in front.

"What we're seeing is an undercurrent of anger over the lack of inclusion in Hollywood," says Janice Min, a veteran industry observer who oversees both The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard. "That conversation can only have beneficial effects on women."

Also Read: Damning study finds a 'whitewashed' Hollywood

Min notes that the recent focus on unequal pay for women — sparked by Patricia Arquette's fiery Oscar speech last year, then intensified by high-profile comments from Jennifer Lawrence — has for the moment receded from the spotlight amid questions of racial diversity. But it's all part of the larger picture. "Yes, there will be some parts of the issue that will be resolved first, and some later," she says. "But the fact that discussion is happening at all is stunning. It's a real revolution in Hollywood."

A few recent developments have provided cause for some hope. The first, of course, is the pledge by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to double the number of women and people of color among its membership ranks by 2020. There is also an EEOC investigation under way into possible discriminatory hiring practices of women directors, prompted by the American Civil Liberties Union.

More recently, Ryan Murphy, one of the more powerful figures in television, said he aims to have 50 percent of all director slots on his shows filled by women, people of color and members of the LGBT community. "I personally can do better," he told the Hollywood Reporter.

Still, cautions Lauzen, there is a huge gap between talk and action.

"While it appears to be a step in the right direction, at this point it is just a promise," she says of the Academy's move. And of the EEOC investigation, she says, "any hiring goals that may result will need to be mandatory, and there will need to be significant oversight. That would be a tall order and a move without precedent in the film industry."

Lauzen's report, "The Celluloid Ceiling," found that in 2015, women comprised 19 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 250 domestic grossing films — an increase of 2 percentage points from last year, and the same as in 2001.

It also found that women in certain roles more traditionally identified with males — such as directors and cinematographers — increased steadily as more films (the top 500, say, instead of the top 100) were examined, suggesting that on the biggest-budget films, "hiring decisions for these roles may be most susceptible to mainstream film industry biases."

A bright spot, Lauzen notes, is that films with at least one woman director also employ greater percentages of women in other roles. "On films with at least one female director, women comprised 53 percent of writers," Lauzen says. On films with male directors, women accounted for only 10 percent of writers. Films with female directors and writers also tend to have higher percentages of female characters, and especially female protagonists.

Some high-profile Hollywood actresses have found they needed to become producers themselves to get the substantive roles they desired. "I was seeing a deficit in leading roles for women," Reese Witherspoon told The Associated Press in a 2014 interview. "It was just the lack of complex characters, of interesting, dynamic women onscreen." Witherspoon has produced both "Gone Girl" and, starring herself, "Wild," both films with complex female protagonists.

Also Read: Hollywood can now hack your emotions

And Halle Berry said recently that she'd set up her own production company in 2014 partly because she had found it difficult, since becoming the first black best-actress Oscar winner in 2002, to find the right substantive roles.

Actresses of color face a tougher climb than anyone, says Chris Rock, who will host the Oscars on Sunday. "Black women get paid less than everybody in Hollywood," he recently told Essence magazine. "Everybody's talking about Jennifer Lawrence. Talk to Gabrielle Union ... talk to Nia Long. Talk to Kerry Washington. They would love to get to Jennifer Lawrence's place, or just be treated with the same amount of respect."

What will it take to change? Lauzen says the issue is the mindset at the top. "Many of those with the power to shift the gender ratios — executives at the film studios, and leaders at the academy and at guilds — have not perceived women's under-employment as a problem. In other words, there has been little real will to change."

Attorney Melissa Goodman of the ACLU of Southern California, which last May asked the EEOC to investigate studios' "systemic failure to hire women directors," says she is hopeful for change.

"I'm optimistic that with time, our most important cultural product — our films and television shows — will increasingly come to reflect the diversity and diversity in viewpoints in our society," she says. "In the meantime, Hollywood decision-makers must remember that they do not get a free pass to discriminate and violate civil rights laws."

As for Min, she notes that despite some evidence of "diversity fatigue" — people at lunches and dinners who are saying, "enough with all this already" — she still thinks things are looking up. "In a world where it's always been all talk and no action, it's pretty stunning to see action being taken."

Besides, even where intentions aren't the best, there's always the fear of shame to get things moving.

"One of the things you can count on in Hollywood is a climate of fear," Min says. "People will be motivated by fear of being shamed."

- AP

Tags hollywood

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